Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, & Sam Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi
A slapstick crime-comedy written by the Coens and directed Sam Raimi sounds like a perfect movie. This was before an era where these names were associated with the sorts of film perfection we talk about now. However, Crimewave is an extremely disappointing picture that has hints of later brilliance. It’s most definitely a Coen Brothers story with Raimi’s style overlaid, which isn’t a combination that works out as good as it sounds. Raimi opts to go for a Tex Avery angle with characters existing in a cartoonish world, yet there are some terrifying and dark aspects in the mix.
Victor is being led to the electric chair while pleading with the guards that he’s innocent. The rest of the movie is an extensive flashback detailing how this former apartment security guard ended up on Death Row. Mr. Trend, the co-owner of a security company across the street, hires a duo of terrifying and cartoonish exterminators (Paul L. Smith & Brion James) to kill his partner. Trend has to contend with his snooping wife (Louise Lasser), whose hobby is watching the neighborhood out their apartment window with her binoculars. She witnesses the murder and Trend rushes over to deal help cover things up everything goes wrong and the exterminators start murdering people left and right.
Meanwhile, Victor has fallen for Nancy, another apartment resident. However, Nancy is going with Renaldo (Bruce Campbell), but Victor is determined to woo her. The trio ends up at a bistro the night of the murders where partner switching occurs, and Nancy believes her night can’t get any worse. When she and Victor return to the apartment, they find themselves tossed right into the middle of the chaos that has unfolded in their absence.
The Coens and Raimi had been good friends for a while before this film, with Joel Coen even helping on editing The Evil Dead. They got together with Bruce Campbell and decided this was the next picture they all wanted to make. The film ended up being plagued with problems on set from the freezing conditions in Detroit at the time to actress Louise Lasser coming to the set obviously strung out on cocaine to Brion James, trashing his hotel room “to exorcise a demon.”
It didn’t get better in post-production when the studio, Embassy, kept poking its nose into the editing the room and making significant changes. Campbell, who was a co-producer, was shut out until Raimi went to bat for him. Raimi’s choice for the composer was replaced for the studio’s decision as well as chucking out his choice of editor. Crimewave flopped, and Bruce Campbell was very vocal about Embassy’s choices being the part of the problem but also acknowledging his own and the rest of the crew’s mistakes.
Crimewave is a tonally inconsistent movie, and you can feel the bad editing. There are moments where Raimi’s aesthetics slip through, and we get shots framed in familiar yet inventive ways. There are even a few set pieces that are brilliant. It’s evident Raimi was channeling classic cartoons of the 1930s and 40s. I can see how there could be a cartoon-inspired horror movie, but this movie just doesn’t find a way to become that thing. The killers have some moments that make them harrowing, and you feel the tension as their victims know they are next. Dark comedy and horror were presented wonderfully in the same in The Return of the Living Dead.
There are so many elements of the Coens work threaded throughout. Of course, you have the offhand reference to Hudsucker County, but the stylistic elements are what stuck out to me. The killers are very much Coen inventions, larger than life, silly but also menacing. Victor feels like a sad sack you often encounter in the brothers’ writing, Raimi exaggerates him to an extent. I could see why the Coens sought out Barry Sonnenfeld as their cinematography on the early films they directed. Sonnenfeld uses some of the same techniques as Raimi but in a manner that works better with the tone of the Brothers’ writing.
Crimewave is a fascinating mess that fans of all parties involved should seek out just to be a completionist. It’s not entirely terrible, but it is beyond redemption. As a historical artifact to see the beginnings of some of the most influential contemporary filmmakers in America, Crimewave is priceless. I can guarantee you will have moments you laugh and are scared, but I don’t think it will be as satisfying an experience as these creators have delivered in other movies.